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Today is the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda hasn’t had a successful attack on Americans for years. President Obama has declared the War on Terror over. So why do most Americans have a nagging sense that it’s not over?
Why do we still go through a striptease every time we board a plane, or shuffle through metal detectors when we enter public buildings? Why do officials tell us we should immediately report to the police we when notice an unclaimed backpack or piece of luggage? If the War on Terror is over, why can’t we go back to the way things were before September 11th?
Because the War on Terror isn’t over, not really. Yes, the Iraq War might be over, and the Afghan War has a termination date in sight, but there is still a terrorist threat looming over us. And we’re not comfortable with it. We don’t like unfinished business, or ambiguity, and the War on Terror still feels like both.
The world laughs at Americans for having a notoriously short attention span. Our women don’t like last year’s fashions, our men don’t like last year’s car models, and our children certainly don’t like last year’s music. Americans thrive on reinvention. We’re the same way with wars; we have no patience for long wars, whether it’s the War on Poverty, or the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror. We’re not very good at long term, low- grade chronic problems. We’re terrific at dealing with acute crises, and that’s how we like our wars. We prefer wars which have a beginning, and middle and a victorious end.
When we’re in a war we focus all our national attention on it, and when it’s over and we’ve won, we go on to resume our old lives or, even better, remake new ones. For us, war is an abnormal state of affairs, which interrupts the peace. It’s an acute crisis that summons all our national energy to defeat it. After the Civil War, or World War I, or World War II, Americans launched new industries, created new social rules, invented new opportunities. We don’t dwell in the past, and we don’t hold grudges, either. Ten years after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, we signed a mutual defense treaty with Japan. Twenty years later we were each other’s major trading partners.
But this time, with the War on Terror, things are different. We still commemorate September 11. We did on the tenth anniversary, and we’ll do it today on the eleventh anniversary. Compare that to World War II. FDR called the attack on Pearl Harbor a day that would live on in "infamy," but by that tenth anniversary the Greatest Generation had put that war behind them and moved on.
Why can’t we move on this time? Because it doesn’t feel like this is a war that’s finished; while our enemies may be down, they’re not out.
Al Qaeda may be a shadow of its former self in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it’s moved on and regenerated in Africa and the Middle East. Al Qaeda and other jihadists movements don’t see this conflict as something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. They don’t see war as something which is concluded with a peace agreement, when both sides lay down their arms and pick up their lives. They see war as the normal state of affairs. For them peace is just the period between wars, when the sides regroup to fight again. They see peace as the aberration, not war. When do they think peace comes? Only when they’ve annihilated their enemies.
And that’s why we still commemorate September 11. We realize that the War on Terror is unfinished business, despite what our political leaders tell us. And, as uncomfortable as it is to live with, it’s a war we must ultimately win. Our enemies see this as a fight to the finish. If it’s a fight they ultimately win, the world will enter a prolonged era of darkness. It will be a new dark ages with genocide, tribe against tribe, religion against religion, race against race, and fought with the most dangerous weapons in history.
That’s why it is imperative that we fix our economy, resume our traditional role in the world and once more lead from the front. America is the world’s one essential country. If we don’t lead, who will take our place and set the rules by which the international community is governed? Most likely it will be countries which do not share our values, love our freedom, or believe that man has the right to choose his own leaders. It will be countries which do not share our sense of fair play, or rush to aid victims of natural disaster, or believe in helping the less fortunate. Or even worse, no country will lead and the world will descend into chaos where there are no rules, where it's every nation or tribe for itself.
The War on Terror was not a war of our choosing, and it’s not a war on our timetable. But it’s a war we must win nonetheless.